The Irish Times view on US-Russian relations: Where interests collide

Cautious engagement – supping with a long spoon – is about as good as it will get

Both Russia's foreign minister and the US secretary of state, Sergei Lavrov and Antony Blinken, were measured and pragmatic in public at their first meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, on Wednesday. No progress, sources said, but a first tentative step.

In recent times the US-Russian relationship has been as frosty, arguably, as at any time since the Cold War, with US president Joe Biden pulling no punches in accusing Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, of being a killer and a spate of diplomatic tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions.

Nevertheless, Biden hopes next month to have a first meeting with the Russian leader, and ahead of the Arctic Council meeting made a conciliatory gesture in waiving sanctions against key Russian firms involved in the construction of the controversial Nordstream 2 gas pipeline. Early in the Biden term the US also re-ratified an important arms treaty repudiated by Donald Trump, and its re-engagement with the Paris climate agreement and Iran's nuclear deal put the two countries more firmly on the same page than for many years.

Lavrov acknowledged “serious differences” but urged co-operation “in spheres where our interests collide.” Note, the abrasive “collide”, rather than the less confrontational “overlap”.

And the Blinken collision agenda was substantial. It ranged among other issues from Russian troop manoeuvres on the Ukraine border to military exercises in the Arctic, supposed to be a zone of peaceful collaboration. Russia has also recently unilaterally imposed new navigational rules. The Russian treatment of opposition figure Alexei Navalny was certainly on the agenda as were accusations of Russian government collusion with cyber malfeasance.

Cautious engagement – supping with a long spoon – is about as good as it will get. Blinken insisted that “if Russia acts aggressively against us, our partners, and our allies, we’ll respond – and President Biden has demonstrated that in both word and deed, not for purposes of escalation, not to seek out conflict, but to defend our interests.”